A Dangerous Historical Myopia - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
A Dangerous Historical Myopia

Of particular note regarding last month’s Estonian Bronze Soldier crisis, during which Russian nationalists groups clashing with police and Russian lawmakers threatening sanctions against the tiny Baltic nation over the relocation of a Red Army memorial, was the constant invocation of principles of “anti-fascism” by the Kremlin-backed groups and their sponsors. Chauvinistic politicians, sensationalistic state-run broadcasts, and protesters in the streets of Tallinn and Moscow all made unceasing reference to the ignis fatuus of Estonian “fascism.” Perplexingly, when the Russian nationalist protests spun out of control, resulting in the looting of upscale storefronts and liquor stores, one of the protesters was stabbed by one of his own only to be lionized by the Nashi movement chief as a “Russian hero, who died for us, who like our grandfathers died” in the struggle against fascism.

Likewise, when the Polish national legislature began to consider a draft bill giving local authorities the discretion to remove monuments glorifying Communist dictatorship, Konstantin Kosachyov, the chairman of the Russian State Duma International Affairs Committee, insisted that Soviet World War II memorials symbolize “not just defeat, but the common victory of Poland, the Soviet people and those of the anti-Hitler coalition over the common enemy, namely the Nazis.” Poles and Estonians, who had their countries dismembered by the then-allied Nazis and Soviets, and then endured nearly a half-century of resultant socialist captivity, would be surprised to hear that theirs was in any wise a common victory.

But these absurd claims of a Russian struggle against contemporary fascism are more than just historical myopia and incoherent bellicism. They are clear indicators of the failure of Russia after the initial promise following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and serve as a warning of worse to come. Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation has perspicaciously described these aforementioned appeals to anti-fascism first as “part of classical Soviet political-warfare techniques (undoubtedly studied by the KGB alumni who are now in charge of Russia) to singularize a designated opponent while attacking it, so as to inhibit general solidarity with that targeted opponent.” What is more, Socor ominously notes, “by stirring up enmity within Russia against Estonia over the Bronze Soldier, the Kremlin seeks to immunize the public against any Russian form of Vergangenheits-Bewaeltigung (Germany’s post-Nazi comprehension of its history) so as to avoid internal challenges to the Soviet-successor ruling elite.” More evidence, in other words, for Pyotr Chaadaev’s famous assertion that Russia’s universal lesson to the world is that its example is to be avoided at all costs.

There was, at one time, hope that this distressing state of affairs would not come to pass. The Russian writer Yevgeny Yevtushenko, inspired by the promise of perestroika, insisted in his 1987 poem “Monuments Still Not Built” that “there can be no rebuilding without rebuilding memory.” As the Soviet Union crumbled, Yevtushenko was challenging the bureaucracy and intelligentsia to confront the horrors of the past and prepare for the future accordingly. For Yevtushenko and other Russian liberals, the “time of honest marble” had arrived, and, for starters, monumental socialist propaganda was to be replaced by memorials dedicated to the victims of Communism. Despite this early optimism, Yevtushenko’s dream of honest marble was not to be realized; the efforts of Russia’s Memorial Society have come to nothing, and a national monument to victims of political persecution has yet to be erected in Russia. Instead, for the most part any honest marble on this subject is to be found in the previously captive nations of Central and Eastern Europe, and now in Washington, D.C., the site of the newly installed Victims of Communism Memorial.

Yevtushenko’s vision of a historically sensitive, culturally revitalized, and internationally integrated Russia was clearly a non-starter. One of the early (and now largely forgotten) disappointments in post-Soviet Russia’s relations with the West, and one which eerily prefigured the “anti-fascist” rhetoric of the Estonian crisis, concerned the dispute over Central and Eastern European national archives looted by Stalin’s “trophy brigades” during World War II. After the fall of the Soviet Union, calls for the restitution of these vitally important archives grew louder, and as a condition to joining the Council of Europe in 1995, Russia was obliged to settle all issues related to the return of property claimed by member states of the Council of Europe (and particularly with respect to those artworks and documents transferred to Moscow in 1945). Instead, the Russian parliament produced a piece of legislation concerning “cultural valuables” that in effect nationalized the dispersed cultural treasures, thereby barring a return to their rightful owners. The newspaper Pravda offered support for the legislation, warning that Russia could be “robbed again” by claimants. President Yeltsin, fully aware that the legislation contravened international law, vetoed it, but 141 of 178 Duma representatives overrode the veto after comparing the law to the battle of Stalingrad and claiming that restitution would be “spitting on [World War II veterans’] graves.” Central and Eastern European governments protested, but to no avail. This legislation was at the time hailed in Russia as one more victory over “fascist invaders.”

Just as the Taliban’s cultural crime of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas foreshadowed larger political challenges, so too did these more or less symbolic Russian failures foretell of socio-political ones to come. (This is not to suggest, of course, that the Taliban and the Russian Federation are in any way similar; rather, that future challenges can be signaled by essentially symbolic political gestures.) Owing in no small part to Russia’s inability to rebuild the memory of its totalitarian past, Russian “sovereign democracy” is now anything but democratic, as evidenced by the Kremlin’s ongoing centralization of power, the muscle-flexing of the special services, the marginalization of opposition parties, the erosion of federal principles, the rampant gangsterism, the state’s stranglehold on the press, crackdowns against human rights organizations, the Litvinenko affair, and so on. It is no wonder that (pace Vladimir Putin’s shameless claim that he is the world’s only “absolute, pure democrat”) the Russian word demokratiya is often intentionally mispronounced as dermokratiya, a scatological pun.

This status quo is not merely a concern for free-thinking Russians, however. “Having done away with the domestic opposition,” the Russian journalist and asylum-seeker Yelena Tregubova has written, “Putin…has now decided to deal with the external ‘enemies.'” What Europe and the United States now face is a revanchist Russian Federation, dysfunctional but flush with petro-dollars, that currently exhibits a volatile admixture of neo-czarist imperial ambition and Soviet-era rhetoric and tactics.

Russian revanchism in recent decades has traditionally been directed towards countries of the so-called blizhnee zarubezhe, or near-abroad, like Azerbaijan (as seen in 1990’s “Black January”), Georgia (with Russian interference in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), Moldova (with the Kremlin-backed Transnistrian Republic) and throughout Central Asia (evidenced by Russia’s “special relations” with co-ethnic communities therein). Now, to again quote Vladimir Socor, Estonia has been targeted in “the first serious attempt to reverse the post-1991 status quo in Europe,” and subsequent Russian saber-rattling over the placement of missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic represents another, more concrete, example of the Kremlin’s goal of reasserting its erstwhile authority in Central and Eastern Europe by exerting influence over the defense policies of two sovereign, democratic nations (members of NATO and the EU, no less). A symbolic challenge has again preceded a concrete one.

It is a historical truth that Russia seeks its own stability through the instability of its neighbors; the security afforded by European missile defense systems against rogue regimes is thus not in Moscow’s interests. Equally important to Kremlin policymakers, however, is the symbolic reassertion of Russia’s geopolitical throw-weight in Central and Eastern Europe. The United States, NATO, the EU, and its constituent states can no longer rely on “frank discussions” with Vladimir Putin at international summits like the recent Munich Conference on Security Policy or the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm to safeguard Europe from Russian revanchism (whether in the energy sphere, or as seen in the recent attempted abrogation of Eastern European national sovereignty). Instead, Western policymakers should be mindful of the words of Alfred Mercier, the 19th-century French polemicist, who wrote in 1863 that “as long as Europe remains what it is today, that is, strong and disciplined, [Russian] cannons will knock at its doors in vain.” A strong and disciplined Europe would not tolerate Russia’s irrational “anti-fascist” rhetoric, nor would it overlook the Kremlin’s repeated attempts to diminish the sovereignty of its western neighbors. A strong and disciplined West would follow through with the Central European missile defense program, entertain Polish recommendations for an “energy NATO,” and take other appropriate affirmative steps to bring Russia into line with other rational, dependable actors in the world system.

Time will tell whether Europe and the United States will take the proactive steps Mercier foretold as necessary to deal with the Russian challenge. By examining Russian rhetoric and Russian actions over the last month within the context of the longue durée, however, it is clear that we have been served sufficient warning of the destabilizing effects of Russian revanchism. With the evident failure of the poet Yevtushenko’s vision of a reformed, liberalized Russia, the West must now adjust its own Russian policy accordingly. Only then will it be clear that we have learned the lessons so eloquently embodied in the Victims of Communism Memorial, lessons that recent “anti-fascist” demagoguery indicates have gone unlearnt by those in power in Russia.

Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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